Ohio board reopens 91 sexual assault cases against medical professionals after Strauss scandal review
The reexamination is the result of recommendations of a working group appointed in the wake of the Dr. Richard Strauss sexual abuse scandal at The Ohio State University.
The State Medical Board of Ohio is reopening 91 sexual assault cases against physicians and other licensed medical professionals that were previously closed. But, at least one expert doesn't think that's enough.
The re-examination, announced publicly Wednesday, is the result of recommendations of a working group appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine in 2019 in the wake of the Dr. Richard Strauss sexual abuse scandal at Ohio State University.
The working group also recommended in its closing report that another 42 cases that had come before the medical board be reopened to investigate a failure to report the misconduct of a fellow licensee.
The group recommended 11 cases be referred to law enforcement agencies for possible criminal prosecution.
“I appreciate the working group and the medical board’s efforts to thoroughly review these cases and re-examine cases those that should not have been closed,” DeWine said in a written statement.
One of the pending failure-to-report complaints relates directly to the Strauss case, the working group reported. That is the alleged failure of Dr. Ted W. Grace to report Strauss' actions in the 1990s and "a false statement related to the practice of medicine,” the report states.
Strauss, who died by suicide in 2005 in California, has been accused of sexually abusing hundreds of former students while he worked for Ohio State University between 1978 and 1998.
The group's decision to try to hold a few people accountable is a good move, but there isn't much else in the report that indicates things are likely to change, said Wendy Murphy, adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law Boston.
"Aside from the potential for prosecution of a few individuals, there is nothing in this report that would give me comfort that this would not and could not happen again," Murphy said.
The length of the final report, which clocks in at 173 pages, is a red flag in and of itself, Murphy said. The actions that need to be taken to prevent sexual misconduct are so obvious and specific that it shouldn't take a book-length report to detail them, she said.
The final report issued by the group calls for more transparency to be brought into the complaint investigation process, potentially by changing state law.
Changes should be made to "ensure that the investigation confidentiality not be a shield from oversight of inappropriate inaction such as that in the Strauss investigation," the report states. But the report stopped short of saying exactly how laws should be altered.
Ducking that responsibility is a common move and one that ensures that nothing is likely to change, Murphy said.
"Throwing the ball to the legislature … That's not going to happen," Murphy said. "Everyone knows no one is going to tear down that wall of confidentiality."
The working group, chaired by Tom Stickrath, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, oversaw a review of all sexual assault allegations against physicians and other licensed medical personnel that were investigated and closed without action by the State Medical Board over the past 25 years.
The team identified a total 1,254 closed sexual misconduct cases that had come before the State Medical Board during that time. Of those, the reviewers determined that 991 required no additional action.
For the remaining 263, the reviewers recommended 213 cases be reopened if feasible to review the allegations of sexual impropriety. Of those, the board is treating 91 cases as active investigations.
The remainder either already were the subject of formal action by the medical board, or the reviewers recognized that the ability to pursue action on the license appeared infeasible.
In response to the Strauss scandal, the medical board has adopted a mandatory reporting rule for its staff members who become aware of either potential sexual impropriety by licensees or a licensee’s failure to report such sexual impropriety. It has also sought to publish data on complaints without identifying their target.
During fiscal year 2020, a total of 7,343 complaints were filed with the State Medical Board. Of those filed, 5,777 were closed.
The board ruled that no action was warranted for 2,533 complaints, or 44%. The board took disciplinary action in just 4% of cases, or 245 complaints, according to the report.
Another 52% of complaints, 2,999, were investigated and then closed. Although they didn't result in formal disciplinary action, licensees under investigation might have received a letter, a meeting with board members or a referral for further education, according to the report.
DeWine created the working group by executive order in May 2019 to review the medical board’s 1996 investigation of Strauss after a separate investigation commissioned by Ohio State found that Strauss sexually assaulted at least 177 male students throughout his 20-year tenure as an athletics and student health doctor at the school.
Ohio State's most recent campus safety report released in December revealed that more than 2,200 instances of fondling and 127 instances of rape attributable to Strauss were reported in 2018 and 2019.
About two months before that report was released, Ohio State students who said they were sexually abused by Strauss called on the NCAA to investigate the university "for intentional actions that led to the harm" of hundreds of students and student-athletes, according to a letter that attorneys sent in October.
In a separate letter to the Big Ten Conference, the students called on the conference to investigate Ohio State "for intentionally covering up Dr. Strauss's sexual abuse" of students and to "force the university to take action designed to ensure that future students attending Ohio State are protected from sexual predators."
The news of those requests came a day after Ohio State announced a second settlement with some of Strauss's accusers for $5.8 million. Combined with a settlement with other plaintiffs reached earlier in 2020, that brought Ohio State's settlement payments to $46.7 million among 185 plaintiffs.
Adele Kimmel, an attorney with the nonprofit group Public Justice, which is representing some of Strauss' victims, called the working group's actions "an important step toward redressing the harm done to the sexual assault survivors" in a prepared statement.
"Given the public trust in members of the medical profession, it’s critical that the bodies responsible for allowing them to practice medicine treat reports of sexual assault with the utmost seriousness," Kimmel said.
At DeWine's request, a dozen other state boards that regulate the licenses of health care professionals were asked to report to the working group how they handle sexual assault complaints.
The organizations included the Ohio Board of Nursing; Ohio Board of Psychology; Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board; Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board; Ohio Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Athletic Trainers Board; Ohio Speech and Hearing Professionals Board; Ohio State Chiropractic Board; Ohio State Cosmetology and Barber Board; Ohio State Dental Board; State Board of Emergency Medical, Fire, and Transportation Services; State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy; and the State Vision Professionals Board.
The boards generally reported an emphasis on developing and reiterating the duty to report licensee misconduct.
"Building upon lessons learned, these boards have made important improvements to policies and rules, and are implementing training for investigators, staff and in some cases, licensees," the working group reported.
The working group's closing report recommended minimum standards on future training for investigators and enforcement staff for these agencies to include handling of sexual assault complaints.
Although the Ohio State Cosmetology and Barber Board is not traditionally considered a health care board because its licensees are not subject to the same statutory standards as those of other health care boards, the working group noted that clients of its licensees are vulnerable in settings that include touching or customers in various stages of undress, such as with waxing, tanning, or relaxation massage.
The working group acknowledged in a footnote in its report that recommendations made to the Ohio State Cosmetology and Barber Board will apply somewhat differently than the other boards, but their inclusion in the process was to "expand the reach of the lessons learned from other health care boards, and in the process broaden the protections to prevent and detect sexual impropriety."
The working group's closing report can be viewed at: